Being Observant

I was busy last week teaching cave rescue at the annual National Cave Rescue Commission Weeklong training seminar, hence my lack of a post last week.

As always, I had a great time helping to teach a class of 19 students. Our teaching includes classroom time as well as time in the field. We use both caves (obviously) and cliffs for out in the field instruction. The cliffs give us an opportunity to focus on rigging and lets everyone see what’s going on; mostly. In a cave, often it’s too dark and small to let everyone have a good few.  But, you may notice that I said mostly above.

Let me interrupt with a quick video.  Can you count the number of times the players dressed in white pass the basketball? If you got 15, congrats.

Now back to the class being on the cliffs. As part of our exercises, we usually do several iterations of the same thing, such as lowering a patient and then raising them up. Each time we may change a detail or two, such as where they can rig, what haul system to use, etc. The idea is that repetition helps them learn the skill. Often though, at the last iteration we toss in a wrinkle: they’re not allowed to speak, at all. Generally this means, they have to start with a pile of rope and hardware on the ground and without saying a word, rig a safe system to lower and raise a patient.  Generally they use a variety of hand signals and various body motions. While at times it can be quite entertaining, it can also be instructional. It’s often the faster iteration of the day, in part because they’ve honed their skills but also due in a large part because there’s no ideal chit-chat.

The point of the exercise is multi-fold. Partly it’s a great challenge for them that they end up really enjoying. It also illustrates that communication is still possible when you can’t verbalize things. This is actually often common in caves where rushing water or echos can make vocalizations useless. It finally shows that they’ve come together as a team and can work effectively.

That said, sometimes they can miss details. As instructors we ensure though that no safety issues are missed. We will stop the exercise if we see something unsafe and help them make it safe.  Part of this includes an instructor on a separate rope to hang over the edge so they can watch the patient (generally another instructor) go down and come back up. This instructor watches the entire process for safety reasons.

This time around, we decided to add a bit of a twist to the exercise.  Generally the safety instructor stays at the top. This time however, he rappelled over the edge, all the way to the bottom. Nothing overly unusual about that.

However, once he was at the bottom, along with the patient, who happened to be me, I very quickly detached the ropes connected to my harness and connected them to his harness. I then moved over to the line he had been on and started to ascend as the students began to haul him up.

They eventually got him to the top and congratulated themselves on a job well done. Other than the student at the edge of the cliff who had watched the process, none of them appeared to notice that they had lowered me and raised him.

This actually isn’t totally surprising. We like to think of the human brain as a computer, but in many ways it’s not. Or at least it’s not a digital one with perfect recall. We actually ignore a lot of “noise” in order to focus on what’s important at the time. The fact that the person they hauled up was different from the person they had lowered counts as noise in this case because it’s so improbable that the brain won’t bother processing it, lest it take away from more important tasks, like ensure the ropes were handled safely.

And for those of who you didn’t watch the video, the answer is 15, but that’s not what’s important. Go watch it.

Today’s takeaway, our brains are fuzzy and work “well enough” most of the time, but can miss details. And generally, that’s ok.

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